SOCHI, Russia — Gracie Gold looks the part. With blonde hair pulled into a bun, a dress straight out of a fairy tale and a free skate to Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, all that's seemingly missing is a tiara and a kiss from a prince.
U.S. figure skating has been looking for its next ice princess ever since Michelle Kwan left the stage before the 2006 Olympics. At the 2010 Olympics, the glass slipper didn't quite fit as the American women failed to win an Olympic medal in figure skating for the first time since 1964.
In Sochi will Gold play the part?
"I think she's incredibly elegant," coach Frank Carroll said. "She has a beautiful face, a beautiful body and she's long and she jumps high and she floats through the air . … Kind of a complete package."
Before her Grand Prix debut in 2012, Gold was already being tagged for the role. "There is always the next big thing, the next big skater," Gold said at the time. "Everyone saying, 'She'll bring back women's skating. This will be the one to watch at the Olympics.' And they say things that are so far away but really you have to bring it back in and look at the next competition, the next day, what you want to accomplish because if you get too far ahead of yourself you can trip yourself up."
As it turned out, Gold, 18, had a few stumbles, but never tripped. After a winning her first national championship with ease last month, Gold heads into the Olympics as the one to watch, and perhaps even medal.
"I think it's a realistic goal," she said. However, she might have to settle for a medal below her namesake metal. Olympic champion Kim Yu-na of Korea, two-time world champion Mao Asada and Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia, the newly crowned European champion at 15, are considered the gold-medal favorites.
Two-time national champ Ashley Wagner had been considered the U.S.'s best hope for a singles medal in Sochi, but a poor performance at nationals dimmed those prospects. Wagner finished fourth but was named to the Olympic team (ahead of bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu) because of her strong body of work. Polina Edmunds, 15, finished second and the Olympics will be her first senior international event.
Hungry for the next face of figure skating, Gold's win at nationals resonated across the country. The day after the victory, her name was the nation's seventh-most searched term, according to Google trends. Only the Golden Globes and various Hollywood types were more popular that day.
A star turn on The Tonight Show followed. After a few questions about her rise, and the obligatory grainy video clips of early performances, Gold showcased her juggling talents. (Gold juggles before competitions as a way to hone her focus.) She tossed a few lemons into the air, exchanged easy banter with Jay Leno and embraced the spotlight.
Winning her first national figure skating title in Boston, where it all began, was a bit of symmetry for Gold. As toddlers, Gold and her twin sister, Carly, took their first steps on the ice in the Boston suburbs where they were born.
After moving from the Boston area when she was five, Gold spent most of her childhood in Springfield, Ill., but left after her freshman year of high school to train fulltime in the Chicago area. Gold, her mother and sister rented a house close to the rink, reuniting most weekends with her father. Their father, Carl, an anesthesiologist, remained in Springfield, along with their mastiff, Stella.
Then last September, just as the season began, Gold left coach Alex Ouriashev and moved to Los Angeles to work with Carroll. Her mother Denise, her sister, also a senior-level skater, and their Japanese Chin, Yoshi, came as well.
A natural jumper, Gold's artistry has improved under Carroll. The risky move of changing her short program to Grieg's Piano Concerto in November paid off. Working with noted choreographer Lori Nichol on the piece added a level of sophistication to her program.
Now after Gold finishes her jumps and run-throughs at practice, she takes time to appreciate what she called the "nuances in the music and the points in the program where I can really connect with the judges and audience." She said her goal is to exude a warmth that lights up the arena.
"I think that's something to look forward to. The new Gracie Gold at the Olympics," she said. "In 2014, you'll see a lot of the warm Gracie, and not just the athletic Gracie."
Gold enters Sochi brimming with confidence (and third-person references). She has reigned in her self-critical tendencies under Carroll's calming mien. Wound as tightly as a spiral, her unyielding pursuit of perfection helped make her a national champion, but at times it has held her back.
"It will always be an aspect of my personality," she said. "It's been there since was little. Baking cookies was equally traumatic if they didn't look like picture in cook book."
"We're really trying to let go some of the harmful perfectionist things where it starts to get in your way," she said about Carroll's approach. "He's helped make me into that perfect perfectionist."
Her mother has noticed the changes. "She's more gentle with herself, more accepting. That takes a lot of work because she's hardwired one way," Denise Gold said.
After Gold won in Boston, she was asked to pick one figure skater whose career she would like to emulate. Kwan, the last American ice princess, first came to mind given her record nine national championships.
"But then you think about Olympic performances and maybe you want an Olympic gold medal and be like Kristi (Yamaguchi) or Sarah (Hughes). It's hard to pick one," she said.
As for her vision of the career after Sochi, Gold would love to compete through another Olympic cycle.
"I definitely see myself in the top of the nation and top of the world for years to come," she said, sounding every bit like an ice princess ready to take hold of the crown.